I recently returned from Paris, where English rock star Pete Doherty’s ads for French clothing company The Kooples were on full display everywhere I turned.
And it got me to thinking:
Lately it seems like most celebrities simply ignore their death cues. Pete Doherty is a fine example. He is a completely reckless yet talented rock star, repeatedly arrested for dangerous behavior and often found in seedy environs, surrounded by drug paraphernalia. Yet he surpassed the magical rock icon death age of 27 (Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain and Winehouse all died at that age) and I’m pretty sure he will live a good, long life; long enough to grow a beer gut and front a reunion tour.
Celluloid and rock ‘n’ roll mythology used to dictate that celebrities would either die tragically or spend their later years out of the limelight in some creepy, decaying mansion in the Hollywood Hills ala Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard”. But nowadays, Norma Desmond would live each day with a full camera crew in that mansion, documenting her every move for a reality TV show. It might be called “Close Up With Norma Desmond”. Her young lover Joe Gillis would not be found dead, floating in the pool, but would instead negotiate a book deal.
So I’ve decided that the problem with modern celebrity is that Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes adage has taken a peculiar turn. It isn’t 15 consecutive minutes of fame.
Unlike his muse Edie Sedgwick (who definitely died on cue) it’s 15 minutes served up piecemeal: Five minutes of pure, high glam fame, five minutes of rehab/mea culpa on a talk show fame, and five minutes of reality TV fame. This 15 minutes could be spaced out over a couple of decades.
The reasoning here is that in the era of 24-hour cable, there is just too much programming time to fill. In the past, there was no need for the likes of Eric Estrada or Hulk Hogan after their first flush of fame. They were faded stars and that was the end of it. Now these types of people are being recycled. They are re-discovered, like a pair of socks found under bed, long forgotten but suddenly useful again. In the past only Vegas offered a venue for celebrity phoenixes to rise from the ashes. Now there are hundreds of opportunities to get your tired, botoxed mug back into America’s living rooms.
Aside from the reality TV retreads, there are those celebrities who are not interesting enough to sustain a lifetime career like Robert DeNiro, but passed up icon status long ago by not dying. Nor did they have the decency to fade away quietly. Instead they clog up the airwaves with their tedious stories of “creative journeys” that involve re-imagining old songs by stripping the electric guitar and adding a lute. We have to hear about their “spiritual path” and the aha moment (“I woke up in a ditch” “I sold my pants for drugs”) that led them to a stint in rehab. One “transforming” visit to Machu Picchu and the world is subjected to a glacially paced, 3-hour cinematic vanity project.
Some rarified celebrities have no death cue. They are able to withstand the test of time, and continue to entrance us. Keith Richards for example. The man is eligible for AARP membership and still fulfilling the rock star archetype. This has cultural value. In an uncertain world, there is a calming sense of tradition in knowing that Keith Richards is just as crazy at 68 as he was at 28. A bit like the bedraggled Christmas ornaments from childhood that are hung on the tree each year. He continues to play the role of debauched rocker, and a cubicle-trapped world breathes easier.
As a whole though, it seems that dead celebrities have the upper hand. It’s easier to maintain one’s dignity. Life is full of IRS debts, dirty accountants and cocaine addictions that can drain a bank account and force celebrities to undertake embarrassing endeavors. Can you imagine James Dean playing the affable, fat granddad on an ABC sitcom? What about Kurt Cobain hosting an infomercial for the “Time Life Grunge Retrospective Collection”? Or Janis Joplin on the talk show circuit, pitching her book: “Take A Little Piece of My Heart: My Journey from Addiction to Recovery”?
But in a world of healthier eating habits, exercise regimes and quick thinking 911 operators, life expectancies for all of us are longer. That includes celebrities in both a physical and professional sense. Just when you think a career is dead, a celebrity will reinvent themselves as a game show host or “life coach”. They shock us by popping up when we least expect them, just when we thought we were done with them, much like the bloody bathtub scene in “Fatal Attraction”.
Years ago, in a world before cable, celebrity rehab and Cher, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “There are no second acts in America.”
If he were around today, he’d probably print a retraction.